David and Brannon’s “Be a Big Wheel” categorization argued that men strive to achieve higher social status through success, primarily in regards to work, sports, and heterosexual conquest.[^] “Big Wheel” status comes from an admiration and appreciation for a man’s successes, and results in even more advantages in social standing and privilege in areas such as occupational and civic status. In America, David and Brannon noted, there is a special focus on a man’s work - primarily the ways through which his success is translated into, ”…visible and socially acceptable symbols - money, possessions, power.”[^] Beyond these symbols of monetary value largely only available to the upper classes, David and Brannon added that other avenues are available to men of all classes, including discursive and physical competition in order to gain respect or prestige within a social group or workplace, or gaining a reputation for athletic prowess or sexual performance.[^]
The DoD’s depictions of soldiers, both the real soldiers profiled as well as fictional characterizations, often referenced a successful athletic background, a promising career, and as highly regarded by women, all of which purportedly gave them the opportunity to be big wheels and successful breadwinners in postwar life. This past-present-future narrative provides the typical arch of manhood. As boys, these men are understood as competing against their peers, playing games and proving their budding manhood to each other. Service in the military then comes next, and is understood as a necessary process to ‘become men’ by focusing their masculine aggression for good. Once their manhood and aggression has been proven, these men then learn to control their aggression and return to their paternal roles on the homefront. At home, veterans’ success is still tied to the nationalist Cold War narrative, but is articulated through success as a breadwinner.
Defense productions depicted the military as a means through which men attained higher status, while also showing many examples where status was inherent in the men who enlisted in the military. The Big Wheel dynamic covered all parts of a man’s life, including his status as a big wheel before, during, and after his military service. This occurred most often when recruits were shown to be successful athletes in college or high school, then joined the military, gained training and an education, and landed a well-paying job.
Additionally, military provided both an inherent sense of status through honor, while providing means for men to attain status through other means, such as civic engagement and leadership, physical prowess, and economic success. One of the primary recruiting pitches, especially in the postwar years, was the benefit of education and training for the men. Service allowed men to attain a good paying job, social status, and in many cases, a wife as a direct result of these earnings. According to the documents, the military was a place for men of high status to attain even higher status in society. Big wheel status could be attained through a number of different avenues, and the DoD materials illustrate three primary avenues to be explored: athletic achievement and physical prowess, the breadwinner ideal, and respect and admiration from society, including romantic appeal to young women.
I identify three primary ways through which these documents portrayed military men as “Big Wheels”:
The comics often promoted a man’s masculinity before they were enlisted, often through the use of athletic success. Once they were enlisted, their physical prowess continued - through recreational sports as well as battle.
In many ways, military service provided men a fast-track to being a “Big Wheel.” These men were mythologized through media depictions – many of them stemming directly from the DoD – and were given a clear pathway for success through training and education provided by the GI Bill.
Men were socially elevated through the honor granted to them by the uniform. Soldiers and veterans, according to defense documents, were also given an amount of financial security through payment, education, and training. Financial security and the skills learned in the service provided the men with a high social status for the rest of their lives. The documents show that young women were attracted to this combination of honor and financial security.